Secrets of Finding Family Through DNA

You’ve gotten your DNA results, but something’s missing. Where is your family tree? Where is the list of your famous relatives, proven by science?

That’s gonna take some work.

Yes, my friend, genealogical research is the first secret of finding family through DNA.

When I tested in 2013, I wasn’t sure what to expect. DNA testing was still somewhat new for the home market. I won my kit from a blog sweepstakes, when 23andMe was doing a marketing push online. The main thing I was curious about – as with so many people – was whether I really had any Native American blood, as the family lore suggests.

White box with a colorful 23andMe logo and the tagline "Welcome to You."

23andMe Test Kit

And there it was. 0.7%.

Okay, that’s cool. What’s next? Oh, here’s a list of DNA matches. Surely I’ll recognize a few surnames. I think I had around 700 matches back then.

Nope, I didn’t recognize a single name.

Who are these people?

Granted, I knew just a few family stories, most going back one or two generations. I knew these names: Hahn, Silcox, Cook, Allison, Stevens, Pittman.

Now, we all have 16 great-great-grandparents. That’s 16 surnames. (Unless your family is from the South. I have 15 surnames at that generation, because my paternal grandparents were second cousins.)  Anyway, lots of potential surnames for third cousins.

But wait, there’s more. Let’s say, in addition to your ancestors each pair of great-great-grandparents produced two other children, one boy and one girl. Those girls got married and changed their names. They each had a daughter, who got a new name. I’m not good with math, but that’s at least 20-something more surnames to get through. And in the 1800s and even early 1900s it was common for people to have 6, 8, 12 children. Then they’d get remarried and have some more.

If you know six surnames, and your third cousin knows six surnames, you’re both scratching your heads wondering how on Earth you’re related.

(By the way, if you’re still figuring out how you’re related to your second, third, and fourth cousins, several websites have a handy chart. I like the one at Flowing Data. It also explains that whole “once removed” thing.)

So, the second secret of finding family through DNA is: you have to build your family tree backwards, forwards, and to the side. That way, you can look at your third (or fourth or fifth) cousin’s list of surnames or their much-smaller-than-yours family tree and more easily find the connection.

The third secret is knowing where all these ancestors lived. I know my maternal grandfather’s family lived for three generations in Marian County, Georgia. When my DNA match has connections to Georgia, I check that branch of the family first.

Here’s a story: I had a DNA match to a man, surname Lawrence. I sent him some of my surnames, and he wrote back that he was only researching the Lawrence family. I was told he was the grandson of Cager Britt Lawrence, whose past was unknown prior to his arrival in Buena Vista, Georgia. Google Maps showed me that Buena Vista is in – you guessed it – Marian County. A thorough look through my Cook family tree showed that Cager Lawrence married Lou Della Cook, my great-great grandfather’s sister.

There is no fast easy way to make sense of your DNA results. It takes time and some detective skills, but consider this: as long as you share your findings with other members of your family (siblings, children, and even a few fifth cousins once removed), you are helping create a legacy for your entire extended family.

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About Taminar

When I grow up, I want to make movies and write books. Now in my 50s, I wonder if I'll ever really accomplish the dreams of my youth. I have made two short films, one for a college film-making class, the other for an MTV-sponsored contest. I have written short plays that have been produced, and a few short stories and reviews that have been published. I also perform and direct for community theatre. My working life has included stints in local TV news, public relations, retail management and cashier, and for a couple of years, I made the rides go at Walt Disney World. I have two cats and a husband.
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